That said, it also seems to me impossible to disentangle Summers’ leadership difficulties from broader ideological issues affecting the academy. The original draft of the 2005 faculty resolution listed three specific events justifying a motion of no confidence: the president’s remarks about women in science; his handling of the Cornel West matter; and his denunciation of a proposed faculty resolution urging Harvard to divest from firms doing business in Israel. In an attempt to win the votes of more moderate faculty members, the final resolution excluded mention of specific issues. But had Summers taken the opposite position on these three matters, it’s very, very hard to believe that a no-confidence measure would ever have been introduced, much less passed.
Of the three, the women-in-science issue most clearly demonstrated Summers’ political and interpersonal failings. For a president of any university, much less Harvard, to deliver remarks challenging the defining creed of the contemporary professoriate—“diversity”—requires careful thought, not the sloppy and almost casual reasoning offered by Summers in his speech. He then forfeited any claim to the protections of academic freedom by first refusing for several weeks to release the text of his remarks and then repeatedly apologizing for not simply the tone but also the substance of his comments. And, finally, he alienated supporters among the faculty by attempting to appease his critics. It’s easy to critique Summers’ performance on this matter in retrospect, but it’s also easy to maintain that he mishandled this matter from start to finish.
On the other two issues cited in the original no confidence resolution, however, I’m far less willing to cite political or leadership failures by Summers. Tim notes:
It’s especially important for a reformer in an academic institution to try and formulate reforms in terms that are potentially applicable even-handedly, across the board, and offered in a collaborative spirit. If you want to argue that you expect your faculty to dedicate themselves more to teaching, for example, you don’t pick one or two people to harass over that question. You propose a general standard, push for it insistently in general meetings, and try to figure out ways to hold people accountable from that point onward for meeting that standard. You pursue practices of transparency and accountability that include your own office as a way to expose practices or behaviors that you want to reform.”
On the path that led to Cornel West’s departure, I would argue that Summers by and large followed this approach. By all accounts, he made scholarly accomplishments the preeminent qualification in his personnel decisions, across the board. He urged the faculty to pay more attention to grade inflation. He promoted a variety of (highly commendable) reforms to encourage more interaction between senior faculty and undergraduates. West posed a special problem: he was alone among University Professors, the most distinguished appointments in the Harvard faculty, in essentially eschewing research, and his courses had developed a reputation for sloppy teaching and grade inflation. In retrospect, Summers should simply have ignored him. But, on the other hand, the president’s approach—a private meeting with West to raise his concerns—was not out of line; it was West who brought the matter into the public domain, not Summers.
On the third issue that produced the no confidence resolution—the proposed faculty resolution demanding divestment from firms doing business in Israel, a motion that implied that Harvard would officially hold Israel to a different standard than any other nation in the world—I would argue that Summers’ conduct was absolutely right, and the president’s personal or political skills had no bearing on the criticism that he received. (Lee Bollinger faced almost identical faculty criticism when he spoke out against a comparable resolution at Columbia.) A university president has no more important function than to use his bully pulpit to speak out when members of the faculty have lost their moral bearings.
The anonymous comments from university presidents in Scott Jaschik’s piece depressed me; it seems likely that most presidents (who, after all, most want to keep their jobs) will take from the Summers affair a lesson that, regardless of their own interpersonal or political skills, it’s simply too risky to speak out on any matter that challenges the agenda of a committed segment of the faculty. As for Harvard, I hope the corporation chooses someone who will implement Summers’ agenda, but in a more skillful fashion; I fear the selection of a figure like Princeton president Shirley Tilghman, who would only enhance the power of the most extreme of Summers’ faculty critics.